how to effectively battle dunning kruger

There is a cure for Dunning Kruger according to one of its discoverers. Unfortunately, there's a risk of collateral damage when it's applied.

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Illustration by Ken Taylor

By this point, pretty much all of us know about the Dunning Kruger effect, the inability of people lacking competence in something to recognize the competence of others, especially superior competence. While it’s typically a shorthand for “too stupid to realize they’re stupid” and often used as such, the actual effect is a little more complicated. After all, people subject to it aren’t completely devoid of any and all skills. Why, they might be world renowned leaders in something with which you may be barely familiar. At the same time though, because of their success in their chosen field, they might think they’re experts in everything else and not knowing enough to understand their own limitations, drastically overestimate how much they know and dismiss actual experts in the field as ignoramuses.

For long time readers who know me mostly for my Singularity skepticism this should seem familiar. From George Dvorsky’s penchant for giving code what amounts to superpowers, to Ray Kurzweil’s attempts to apply basics of building artificial neural networks to human minds that have caught on in many pop sci publications and enthralled some researchers, the fields of AI and brain-machine interfaces are littered with examples of people who are quite competent in their fields falling victim to Dunning Kruger, dismissing any criticism of their ideas as a lack of imagination and conservatism. But how does one break free of what seems like a perfect Catch 22 imposed by this effect? If the people can’t recognize their own shortcomings and dismiss dissenting opinions as uninformed because they can’t understand that there may be actual experts who disagree with them for good reasons, what hope do we have of getting through to them?

Well, Dr. Dunning has an answer. The paper featuring his name wasn’t the end of his investigation, and in subsequent work, he identified a good way to show non-experts that they’re not as competent as they are: let them fail in a very definitive fashion. Are you fed up with someone bragging about being a martial arts guru? Get him to spar with someone really good. Is a co-worker sighing about how every project at work will hum in her capable hands? All right, let her be in charge of something. If they’re truly victims of the effect, they will crash and burn, learning of their shortcomings in the most visceral and hard to dismiss way possible. (Unless they’re pathological narcissists, in that case they will simply shift blame onto others.) Otherwise, they might even start thinking about whether they’re up to the task they bragged they’d easily accomplish and refuse to do it in the first place, knowing full well they will fail. The whole point is, in Dunning’s words, prompt them to make some sort of overconfident display and let it backfire.

Of course the important thing here is to allow victims of Dunning Kruger to fail in something that won’t put others or themselves at risk. You probably shouldn’t let them learn about their limitations while managing a mission critical project, or running a country. For the vast majority of them, even a small serving of humble pie should leave enough of an aftertaste not to try again until they’re actually confident that they know what they’re doing. It also seems like a good warning for helicopter parents to let their kids fail in their pursuits once in a while, otherwise they’re either not going to learn their limitations and have a nasty encounter with the real world, or they’ll become so paranoid of failure that they’ll avoid challenging themselves in any way, growing up to be very dissatisfied adults with few goals and with little but mediocrity to show for all their efforts…

# science // dunning krueger / imposter syndrome / psychology


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